|Index||7 reviews in total|
This two-reel drama ranks with the best of D. W. Griffith's output for
Biograph, and is therefore a prime example of the best American
film-making of its day. It was also one of the first of the Biograph
films to feature Lillian Gish as the central figure, and although the
supporting cast is more than competent it's very much her vehicle all
the way. The story is a simple one, focusing on the difficult early
days of a marriage that nearly unravels. According to her memoirs Gish
was determined to play the wife, but almost didn't get the part because
Griffith thought she looked too girlish to play a married woman (she
was about 20 at the time), so Lillian contrived to audition a second
time in an outfit padded to enhance her figure, and landed the role.
The story moves briskly, rather like a condensed version of the domestic scenes from King Vidor's much later film The Crowd. One moment Lillian is a girl playing with puppies, and the next, having married her suitor "against her better judgment," she's keeping house. No attempt is made to glamorize married life in these scenes. (Not so incidentally, director Griffith's own marriage had recently soured.) Pretty soon we are told that the husband is "turning away from the homely joys," i.e. taking his reluctant young wife to decadent nightclubs. The nightclub scenes are the closest this movie gets to those inadvertently funny moments which sometimes mar silent dramas; here, cultural decadence takes the form of a floor show featuring chubby "modern" dancers in togas and animal skins, performing what looks like Isadora Duncan's take on The Bacchae. Oh well, perhaps Griffith meant this sequence to be satirical. In any event the scene provides a light moment in an otherwise heavy story.
The husband falls into an affair -- more of a guilty fling, really -- with a buxom (i.e. wicked) woman he meets at the nightclub, while wife Lillian, who is pregnant, becomes increasingly distraught back at home. There's a striking scene when Lillian finds a woman's glove in his jacket, and realizes that her husband is drifting away. Eventually she leaves him, then gives birth to a sickly baby who soon dies. The death scene is handled with restraint, almost too much so, until the dazed Lillian wanders out into the garden, picks up a stick, and wildly thrashes all the buds off a rosebush. All these years later, this scene is still powerful. The reconciliation sequence that follows and brings the film to a close is beautifully played, and feels well earned and justified, not a contrived Happily Ever After coda tacked on to send viewers home satisfied. The Mothering Heart is indeed a satisfying experience, but it's not an easy ride.
Casting Note: actress Viola Barry (also known as Peggy Pearce) who plays the "other woman" in this film, worked at Keystone the following year and was said to be Charlie Chaplin's first girlfriend there. She played opposite Chaplin once, in His Favorite Pastime, but is seen to much better advantage here.
Lillian Gish excels in one of her earlier starring roles, and the other
characters and the story also help to make "The Mothering Heart" an
effective drama that still holds up pretty well. Although some of the
details are set in its own era, the general subject matter and the
basic themes have not lost any of their force.
Gish plays a young wife whose troubled, erratic husband causes her a series of heartaches. Her characterization works very well, making the wife thoroughly sympathetic yet always believable. She shows restraint much of the time, while also giving indication of the emotions underneath, so that then the moments of emotional release are that much more effective and memorable.
Kate Bruce, as the young wife's mother, and Peggy Pearce (Viola Barry), as the wife's rival, also add their talents to the story. D.W. Griffith's technique is resourceful and solid, getting the most out of the setup.
Besides the good quality of the acting and the technique, the story also still works. Just substitute a few different details, and it provides a couple of thoughtful and sensitive insights on finding happiness at home.
Mothering Heart stays with you long after you watch it. Not only
does it represent a turning point in the career of Lillian Gish, it
showcases Lillian and her support in outstanding performances.
As the little mother, Lillian is haunting. Her scene in the garden
doesn't strike one false note. Her scenes in Birth of a Nation, Way
Down East and The Wind come to mind when you see her stagger
towards the camera, distraught yet blank-faced. Walter Miller
shows off the qualities that Griffith liked in his leading men:
meekness, timidity, vulnerability. His performance anticipates
Bobby Harron's work on the modern story in Intolerance. Viola
Barry is delicious as the Idle Woman. The use of cross-cutting,
framing, set design, costuming, lighting and brisk pacing add up
to a fascinating, eerie film, possibly the best Biograph short Griffith
Lillian Gish gives her greatest early performance in what is arguably
the best Biograph of them all. Here, Griffith puts together all the
dramatic techniques he had honed over the past couple of years, and
finally seems realise what an asset he had in Gish.
For the first time Griffith really liberates his camera, dispensing with the old either/or situation of three-quarter length shots and extreme close-ups. He puts his camera exactly as far from or as close to the action as it needs to be, often using multiple set-ups in the same location. This is particularly effective in the dance-hall scenes the large room becomes a real place because the camera really gets inside it. The introduction of the larger space makes it possible to show the flirtation between the husband and the "idle" woman in medium close-ups without it being confusing. The next logical step here would have been for Griffith to introduce the point-of-view shot, but unfortunately that was a step he never took. See Raoul Walsh's Regeneration for what is probably the earliest genuine point-of-view shot.
Ultimately however, all eyes are on Lillian Gish for her powerhouse performance. She works largely with props, facial expressions, and tiny gestures to convey a whole range of emotions. The fact that she does all this whilst barely moving, while incredible in itself, means that her scene of rage where she batters the rose bushes has all the more impact. The rest of the cast is rather unforgettable, and is made more so in comparison to Gish. Walter Miller, the husband, despite several years at Biograph and a number of lead roles, never really did anything outstanding. He is certainly competent here though, and this may be his finest hour, albeit one outshone by the glow of Miss Gish.
Griffith now had his heart set on directing a full length feature, and probably saw this and the other two-reelers he made in 1913 as warm-ups. Here, he reaches the pinnacle of poignant and dramatic expression in his Biograph shorts, and The Mothering Heart can be seen as something of a companion piece to The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch, in which he perfects the large scale action scenes he would need in his features.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
On the surface it was a typical Griffith/Gish collaboration - death of
a baby, distant husband and a vamp who lures husband away, but what an
astonishing performance by 17 year old Lillian Gish who had only just
started in films the year before. Lillian has a mothering heart as is
shown by her sympathy for two little puppies tussling over a tin can
but it is against her inner feelings that she consents to marry her
ardent young man (Walter Miller). The audience sympathy is all for Miss
Gish as she takes in ironing and hides her sickness, determined not to
let her husband think she cannot do her part. Miller's "husband" is a
shadowy figure. Once he prospers, an "idle woman" (Viola Barry) who
frequents the same café that he and his wife visit, catches his
wandering eye. In a modern, psychological twist he has already taken
Lillian's confidence away from her - criticizing her dress and homely
ways, so by the time they get to the café she feels withdrawn and
Viola Barry's interpretation of the "idle woman" is extremely modern - there is no heavy vamping, she is just a good time girl out for a fling and when Miller gets too possessive there is always someone else to meet - in exactly the same way she met the erring husband.
Lillian Gish really comes into her own during the second half of the film - from the time she finds a glove in her husband's pocket and gazes penetratingly right into the camera, only her eyes changing expression to convey first wonderment and then realisation. She returns to her mother where her sickly baby dies, again the scene with the doctor: she will not be kept from her baby and as she wanders the garden takes out her frustration at life on the rose bushes. Just amazing to see how instinctively she grasped cinema acting so early in her career.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a simple morality play--the sort that was VERY popular in the early days of the cinema. People just loved tales about the evil of drink or the dangers in straying from your devoted spouse--and they made a lot of these pictures. This one is a pretty standard film about infidelity, though it is much better acted than most--with less histrionics and more subdued acting. And, up until the very end, I liked the film. However, out of nowhere, came a part about the baby becoming ill and then dying that just seemed out of place and irrelevant to the plot. Were they trying to say that somehow because of the husband's unfaithfulness that this caused the baby to die?! Huh?! I'm pretty confused about this whole thing now that I think about it.
D.W. Griffith's version of the classic "American Film Tragedy" - Poor
Young Couple is threatened when the man meets
The Seductress! Lillian
Gish and Walter Miller are the plain, unassuming lovers; they marry,
and she has a child. When they go to Town, Temptress Viola Barry spies
hunky Mr. Miller, and the dye is cast. She conveniently has car trouble
when he is passing by, and begins her seduction. Miller steps out on
Ms. Gish, who finds an incriminating glove in Miller's pocket
For Griffith and company, "The Mothering Heart" is a bit of a let-down, considering the high quality of the recent "The Burglars's Dilemma" (1912) and "Death's Marathon" (1912). Though everyone works hard, the situation and club flirtation scenes are somewhat silly.
***** The Mothering Heart (6/21/13) D.W. Griffith ~ Lillian Gish, Walter Miller, Viola Barry
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